Friday, May 11, 2012

Descartes' epistemology

I would like to comment on the question of whether I would reject Descartes' epistemology based on the failure of his individual arguments or on the overall approach he takes to epistemology.

Having looked a bit further into the foundationalism vs. coherentism debate, I am most convinced by the rejection of foundationalism which argues that the acquisition of knowledge isn't a linear process. Under this approach, knowledge is not obtained by a chain of inferential reasoning which needs a non-inferential starting point. This linear process seems to be very much the approach that Descartes takes, he wants to follow the chain back to beliefs that are indubitable by virtue of being so clear and distinct.
The alternative view which most strikes a chord with me is the the "holistic" view of knowledge. Neurath's boat metaphor expresses this beautifully - by which our beliefs are analogous to a ship which requires continuous replacement of any worn or broken parts to remain seaworthy.

Presumably philosophers have much bigger and better maintained ships than non-philosophers!

Despite being a fan of Russell, I am not convinced by the acquaintance argument for non-inferential belief. I would reject it on two grounds. Firstly, I don't believe that this gives us enough of a basis for developing the infinite number of justified beliefs that we hold. Secondly, I'm not sure it even makes sense to refer to the kind of knowledge that we get by acquaintance as true in a philosophical sense.

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